Grapes: A Short Story




This piece is a preview of our next Quarterly Journal: Imitation, No. 23.

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Nishino quickly let out a sigh.

“Thirty million years from now, this place will merge with the Andromeda Galaxy,” he said.

“When you say ‘this place,’ just which place do you mean?” I asked, and Nishino let out an even deeper sigh.

“I mean the Earth and the Sun and Pluto and even the stars further away—all of it,” he replied.

“So, is there something wrong with this place being joined up with Andromeda?”

“It would be brighter. Meaning, it wouldn’t get dark at night.”

When I looked at Nishino’s face, his brow was furrowed and his expression was serious.

“I think it would be nice if it didn’t get dark at night,” I said softly.

Nishino shook his head. “A world without darkness is unthinkable.”

Nishino pulled on my hair as he said this. I think he thought of this as a demonstration of affection. I, however, did not appreciate having my hair pulled.

Andromeda contains so many stars, there’s no way it would ever be night, Nishino explained. It would always be daytime. Everything filled with light. There would be no shadows. Nishino gave another sigh.

“Does that mean that there wouldn’t be any more cloudy days either?” I asked.

Well, there would probably still be clouds.”

“What about rainy days?”

“It would probably still rain.”

That would be okay, then, I said. I liked rainy days. And I liked cloudy days even more. The day when I had first met Nishino had been a blazing sunny day.

It was at the end of the summer, in Enoshima. My relatives ran a beachside refreshment shack, and I worked there part-time. Every weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, I worked two days straight. From the beginning of July, when the beach shack opened, to early September, when they closed it up, I commuted down to Enoshima, never missing a day. I may have been feeling a bit bored and adrift—since, although I had been accepted at my first-choice university, soon after classes had started the previous spring I began to find them dull and so rarely showed my face on campus—nevertheless I had always loved the beach shack. I had been working there every year since middle school.

Nishino had been accompanied by a woman. She looked to be just past thirty, with short hair and a very nice figure. Nishino was in his mid-fifties, which meant that she was quite a bit younger, but Nishino was youthful—in appearance as well as in substance—so the age difference between them didn’t seem so vast.

No matter how chic or urbane the men and women might have appeared when they arrived in Enoshima in their street clothes, once they had changed into bathing suits and were eating sea snails cooked in their own shells and buying nacre key chains in the souvenir shops, they were no different from other “native Japanese.” Enoshima was the kind of place that had an equalizing effect.

However, the woman who had accompanied Nishino was different. She wore a gold chain around her slender ankle. Her pedicure was the color of the deep ocean. She may have looked like a Japanese person but her mien called to mind a place far from Enoshima. Perhaps the deserted beach of an unknown southern island. Or the white sands of a dark and looming sea-side forest.

“That girl—it was like she was always off in the clouds. She didn’t seem to belong anywhere.” This had been Nishino’s reply some time later, when I had remarked on my impression of the woman who had been with him.

“Why would you break up with such a charming lady?” I asked.

Nishino stifled a laugh. “Because, I fell in love with you, Ai!”

“So, Nishino, you mean to say that, when you fall for the next girl, you break up with the previous girl right away?” I asked, raising my voice. Nishino opened his eyes wide and peered closely at my face. His look seemed to say, You’re so young, yet you’re so quaintly old-fashioned.

“I do not break up with them right away,” Nishino replied, after a moment had passed.

“Which means you two-time?”

“I would if I could, but usually the girl doesn’t stand for it.” “So then what happens?”

“I end up getting dumped. By both of them.”

 

Once it comes out—in some way or another—that he’s been two-timing, things are a mess for a couple of weeks. About a month later, the strong-willed ones (and occasionally a weak- willed one) will make up her mind to leave. As for the girl who’s left behind, the situation with her remains cheerful and pleasant for an average of three months. But once the thrill of victory is gone, the girl begins to reflect calmly upon Nishino’s past behavior and, by the fourth month, the accusations begin to fly that Nishino is two-timing again. And then it’s not just about two-timing—the fifth month brings full-scale complaints that Nishino is constitutionally commitment-phobic or that he has a deep-rooted tendency for cheating. I just can’t trust you anymore, and so on. I still love you, but it’s too painful. These were the kinds of things said by the girl who’s left behind when, ultimately, in the sixth month, she leaves.

It takes about half a year to reach this “final conclusion,” Nishino said with a laugh. It’s like the laws of physics. Why is it that, eventually, all girls end up adhering to the same formula in their response, no matter whether they are chubby or skinny, laid-back or uptight, conventionally beautiful or idiosyncratically striking, pescatarians or red-blooded meat- lovers? Nishino inclined his head in wonder.

I myself was just as baffled by Nishino, a man in his mid- fifties who resembled boys my own age, teenagers who thought of nothing but girls.

“Nishino, do you really believe that all girls are exactly the same?” I asked.

“I could be wrong,” Nishino said leisurely. “All the girls I’ve ever known, at least, they’ve all been the same, down to the last.”

Well, then, the girls you date must all be pretty boring, I thought fleetingly, but I immediately regretted feeling mean toward all the girls Nishino had dated whom I had never laid eyes on. I bet one would be hard-pressed to find a girl out there who qualified as “boring.” More likely, they were quite a bit scarcer than boys who were “boring.” I would have said as much to Nishino, but I figured he would make fun of me or call me a nit-picker, saying I must be in favor of female supremacy, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Are you angry?” Nishino asked. I had grown very quiet and still. “I don’t mean you, Ai. I’m sure you’re different,” Nishino went on.

Not you, you’re different—that was pretty cliché, wasn’t it? I thought to myself. This guy Nishino was like some kind of sweetheart swindler.

 “I mean it, Ai. There’s something about you that’s different from all the other girls I’ve ever known.” Nishino grinned, and then he kissed me. I kept my eyes open and stayed still.

No doubt the thing about me that differed from all the other girls was that I didn’t harbor the smallest bit of yearning for Nishino. It wasn’t just Nishino for that matter—I had never harbored feelings for a boy at all, not once. Sure, I liked going out drinking or seeing a movie or simply talking with them just fine, but I had never really fallen for one or found any of them particularly memorable. Not in all of my eighteen years.

So. I had met Nishino at the beach shack. He had been accompanied by the short-haired woman with the nice figure. The following week, Nishino came back again. This time, he was by himself.

“Are there any good bars around here?” Nishino had first said to me. This old guy seems out of place, I had thought.

“There are, if you don’t mind walking a bit, in the opposite direction from the station,” I said, giving him an earnest answer anyway.

“What time do you get off?” Nishino persisted.

I was silent. I had no obligation to tell a complete stranger information like that. I had just spun around and was about to retreat inside when, from behind me, I heard him apologize.

Sorry, that was a rude thing to ask. Nishino spoke in a soft voice.

Later, I told Nishino that his apology had seemed to reflect the wisdom of age, and he had nodded.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize—all too well—that things like manners and reason are not simply for appearance’s sake. What’s more, even when you’re as polite as can be, personal relationships can still fall to pieces. People are very complicated, you know. Nishino sighed as he said this.

I had plenty of doubts about just how polite (principally, to women) and reasonable (again, principally, to women) Nishino had actually been. He had yet to demonstrate either of these qualities to me, at least. Or so I thought.

“You’ve got a boyfriend, don’t you?” Kikumi said to me not long after I had met Nishino.

“Not really,” I replied. Kikumi was staring fixedly at the area around the nape of my neck.

“Then how come you’re hardly ever at your place lately? How come you get so many phone calls from some guy who just says, ‘It’s me” without giving his name? How come sometimes you smell like a certain unfamiliar cologne, Ai?” Kikumi asked in a single breath. I told Kikumi I thought she sounded like a girl chiding her boyfriend for having an affair, and she narrowed her eyes at me.

“Who’s the guy?” Kikumi asked, peering at my face. “Nobody, really.”

“What’s he like? Does he drive a car? Or a motorcycle?” “Probably neither.”

“Is he nice?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“What kind of dates do you usually have?”

“We usually go to his place.”

“Where does this guy live?”

“In Taito-ku.”

Hmm, Kikumi murmured. He sounds pretty refined. I mean, sounds like he makes a living. She took a sip of hojicha as she said this.

I had met Kikumi at our university’s matriculation ceremony. We were in the same department and had been assigned seats next to each other. Her last name is Kasahara, mine is Kase.

Kikumi hadn’t really been going to class either. She commuted from home, though, so she spent a lot of time at my place.

My parents annoy me whenever I’m home, she said. “As long as I pretend to go to class, they rest easy. They have no idea that I’m holing up here.” Kikumi took another sip of hojicha.

Kikumi was a lesbian. It hadn’t even been six months since she admitted it to herself, which was why she didn’t have a proper girlfriend yet. Kikumi had relayed this to me in a detached manner the second time she came over to hang out at my place.

I thought you might be a lesbian too, Ai. That’s why I decided to confide in you, Kikumi had gone on.

Nope, not me. I’ve never been in love with a guy, but I’ve never been in love with a girl either. I guess you could say that I’m as yet undecided about whether I’m homosexual or heterosexual, but I think I’m probably heterosexual. Even though there’s no basis for it.

I had thought about it carefully as I spoke, and when I was finished, Kikumi had laughed.

Ai, there’s something very rigorous about you. You must be quite the scholar.

Sure, I can work and I do like to study. Just once, I got the top grade in every subject—straight fives, I told Kikumi, and she let out a little whoop.

That’s awesome. Even in gym and music, wow!

The time I got straight fives had been the first term of my first year in middle school. In music, there had been no practical test, and in gym, we had played Ping-Pong for the entire term. I’m tone deaf, and I have slow reflexes, but I happen to excel at Ping-Pong. My relatives who ran the Enoshima beach shack, their family’s main business was a small ryokan, and there was a shabby old Ping-Pong table at the inn. I had been playing Ping-Pong against my older cousins since elementary school. It goes without saying, though, that I never got straight fives again.

Anyway, make sure you’re straight with this guy, Kikumi said with a deadpan expression. Because, Ai, you make it seem like you’re playing it straight, when really your attentions are elsewhere. Kikumi seemed to be looking right through me, as if to say, “I’m onto you.”

I got it. I’ll do my best to play it straight, I promised Kikumi. Meanwhile, I marveled at how different her impression of “this guy” and who Nishino actually was must have been.

Nishino was delighted when I told him about this exchange with Kikumi. Even more delighted than I had expected.

“You know, lately, I’ve been wondering what’s going on,” Nishino said.

Nishino and I were in his bed. Apparently, our bodies were well suited to each other. Nishino had been the one to say so, and he was probably right.

I may have slept with a lot of girls, but you’re the best, Ai, Nishino told me. You might think that I use that word a lot— the “best”—but you would be sorely mistaken. To say some- one is the best, well, that just ends up reminding a girl about how many other girls I’ve been with. No—rarely have I dared to utter such a startling admission. I couldn’t tell whether Nishino was being boastful or self-deprecating.

Hmm, I murmured in response. I had no idea whether sex with Nishino was good, bad, or average. It wasn’t that I hadn’t had sex before, just that the sample wasn’t large enough for me to be able to discern if this sex was good or bad.

“Do you like me, Ai?” Nishino asked, trailing his lips along my throat.

“I like you,” I replied, without skipping a beat. Had I given myself time to think, my mind would have started wandering. I had learned from Nishino that one mustn’t be vague—neither in speech nor in conduct—while in the throes of passion.

You should know, Ai, Nishino had explained to me at one point, when you get to be my age, vigor becomes quite important.

Once you lose momentum, well, it’s all over. Everything goes to hell, as if you’ve been swallowed up by a big, gaping crevice that’s opened up in the ground. You might never recover.

At first I had no idea what Nishino was talking about. Like I said, my experience was limited to boys in their teens or early twenties. It was only after this conversation had gone on for quite some time that I finally realized Nishino was referring to erections. This came as a surprise to me, having always assumed that boys would get an erection at any time, that it wasn’t a question of “could”—I had thought they managed to do it even when they weren’t in the mood.

You’re so honest, Nishino, I said, a little impressed.

It’s because honesty, manners, and reason are important to me, he said. This was a mantra of Nishino’s. Why Nishino bothered with the likes of me, I’ll never know. What was it about me—a not-yet-fully-formed creature—that a grown-up like Nishino found attractive? Maybe it was actually my lack of development that he liked. I once mumbled something to him, along these lines, and Nishino thought about it for a moment before shaking his head.

Ai, in addition to the fact that you’re more mature than any grown woman, you’re also purer than any chaste young girl, he said.

That’s quite an embarrassing way of putting it, I said with surprise, and Nishino took me in his arms. He held me tightly for a moment.

I always suspected that Nishino saw something beyond me, some other version of the story. The real me was quite different, but his take on things made him feel good. Nishino would probably insist that he wasn’t the kind of guy who harbored illusions. He’d probably also say something like, that was the reason why, after all these years, he had never married—that in the end, he wasn’t capable of carrying out a passionate love affair. But the truth was that Nishino did seem like the dreamy type who harbored illusions. Not that I had any idea what kinds of dreams those were.

Nishino and I spent the entire afternoon in bed. He had slipped out of the office to come and meet me.

I can’t wait until the evening to see you, Nishino often said to me lately. I miss your face, Ai. I want to feel your breath on my cheek. I want to hear your voice directly in my ear. Nishino would murmur these things to me.

I must be out of my mind, Nishino would go on. Do you like me, Ai? He would ask me the same question as before. And I would reply the same way, on the spot.

I like you.

Nishino would furrow his brow. Then after moving around a bit, he would ejaculate. He was very adept at coming on my stomach.

Use a condom, I’d say to him, but Nishino never did. Instead he would say, Never have sex when it’s near your ovulation day. And the truth was, Nishino never tried to have sex around that time.

“That’s dangerous,” Kikumi said. She was making a passing comment about Nishino’s recent obsession with me. “He’ll get laid off before he knows it, if he keeps playing hooky like that.”

It’s a small company, and he’s like his own boss, so he won’t get laid off, I replied in an uncertain tone.

Kikumi rolled her eyes. “Who does this guy think he is?”

Kikumi asked so many questions about Nishino, I ended up having to promise to introduce them to each other. I dreaded it. I imagined that the elusive, ephemeral quality of my relationship with Nishino—which may or may not have been real—would dissipate if it weren’t just the two of us alone together.

Our relationship was fleeting. That’s what I liked about it. But if the two of us were to spend time with someone else, I dreaded that it might provide external confirmation of the relationship between Nishino and me—validating us as “a couple.” As soon as that happened, it would be like pinning a bill to the wall, and eventually we would be forced to settle accounts.

On the day I had promised to introduce them, Kikumi showed up wearing ridiculously high heels. In these heels, Kikumi was even taller than Nishino. On her wrists and around her neck and fingers, she was adorned with twice as many accessories as usual. Her makeup was heavier too. I thought she looked like someone who was dressed up for a Shinto festival.

Kikumi peered at Nishino’s face with her intense gaze. Nishino returned her look with steady eyes. I sat idly beside them. Quite suddenly, I was struck by a recollection of the angle of Nishino’s erection.

We were at a coffee shop that Kikumi had specified. Kikumi had ordered a coffee, decisively, so Nishino and I had followed suit and ordered coffees as well. The coffee was quite delicious. Sunlight poured through the shop’s windows. There were two white tulips in a crystal vase on the table.

At first we were quiet. Kikumi ordered another coffee. Nishino and I each ordered another coffee too. Nishino was laughing. His face was dead serious, but just one layer beneath the skin he was chuckling to himself. I myself felt a little like crying. Kind of like an idiot. Both Kikumi and I had been alive for less than half the time that Nishino had. And besides, I didn’t even like Nishino all that much. Or so I thought.

“Are you hungry?” Nishino said after a while. As we had been sitting in silence, apart from each other, time had passed, and before we knew it, the sun was starting to set.

“I am,” I said quickly. Even though I wasn’t really all that hungry.

“I’m not hungry but I would have a drink,” Kikumi said slowly. Kikumi’s lips were very pretty. They were a shiny and glossy pearl pink.

“Nishino, what is it you like about Ai?” Kikumi asked, as if this were part of an ongoing conversation.

“Ah, I too would like to have someone explain that to me,” Nishino replied quietly. As if it were part of an ongoing conversation. “In all my life, this may well be the most deviant situation I’ve ever found myself in.” Nishino spoke pretty calmly for a deviant.

Kikumi kept her gaze focused on Nishino. Nishino returned it just as fixedly. One might even have taken the two of them for lovers.

I drank down the last of my coffee. There was only a little bit left in the cup, but I took my time finishing it off. I could hear a buzzing sound over by the counter. It must have been the noise of coffee beans being ground. Just then, I felt a fervent desire to fall in love with Nishino. I wanted to love Nishino in a way that would make him love me. That’s what I was thinking. But the fact was that I didn’t love him. The electric coffee grinder kept buzzing away in the background.

Hey, we should die together.

I can’t quite remember the first time that Nishino said this to me. I think it was around when I was about to start commuting to Enoshima again, so almost a year must have passed since I had met Nishino. Although I had spent little time on campus during the previous year, I hadn’t flunked any of my courses. That was because, as much as possible, I tried to enroll in classes where exams and reports mattered more than attendance. I got lots of A’s because I still happened to like studying. I had turned twenty. And as before, I hardly ever went to school, seeing Nishino three times a week instead.

“If I keep meeting up with you in the daytime, it stands to reason the company will go under,” Nishino had started saying, so our dates were all day Sunday, and then two other evenings in the middle of the week.

The boss can’t take Saturdays off! Nishino said this with a note of tedium. Had I known, I might’ve never started my own company. I’d have taken an undemanding position in government service, so that I could spend all my time the way I like— with you, Ai. Nishino’s tone was semi-serious.

Starting in July, I’ll be working in Enoshima, so we won’t be able to see each other on Sundays, I told him.

Nishino went pale. “I don’t like that at all!” he cried. Immediately he looked embarrassed for having cried out.

“What’s become of me?” Nishino would sometimes utter. This is why I have never, to this day, loved a woman, in the true sense of the word, he would continue in a low voice. Even though it seems meaningless to say “in the true sense of the word.” Nishino would laugh a little as he said this. I liked the way he looked when he laughed best. His handsome features would give way to a sort of unguardedness.

“We’re not going to die together,” I would reply.

“I worry about leaving you behind, Ai.”

“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of my own affairs. And anyway, it’s very strange to talk about who you’ll leave behind.” “I can’t stand the thought of you having sex with other men, Ai.”

“But even now, I could do that anytime I wanted to.”

My reply had been reflexive, and after it came out, I covered my mouth. What I had said was mean. And I hated meanness. What it did to both the perpetrators and to the victims.

Nishino’s expression again looked embarrassed. I mean, really, what am I saying? I sound like a young girl, he said, and let out a sigh.

“Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.

I guess I like rough sex, I thought to myself. It also occurred to me that perhaps I preferred the way that Nishino had sex to Nishino himself. But then again, Nishino’s way of having sex was also a part of Nishino himself. I caught myself before I got too deep in thought. Mustn’t lose momentum.

Nishino finished, rough and quick. We laid in the bed, stroking each other’s bellies. Nishino’s stomach was supple. Mine was taut.

Hey, we should die together. Nishino said it once more. In a soft voice. I strained my ears to try to determine whether or not there was a note of madness concealed in the softness. Nishino repeated himself, over and over. We should die together.

At the end of August, Kikumi and Nishino came to see me in Enoshima. The day was frenetic from early in the morning. Such a strange word, frenetic. But that’s what it was. I murmured it to myself, three times over. Frenetic. Then I said it to Kikumi and Nishino. They laughed as they drank their amazaké.

Nishino and Kikumi put up an umbrella on the beach. Nishino spent the whole time sprawled on the sand. Kikumi went into the ocean every so often. And I, as I said, was too frenetic to even take a break and go out to see them.

Once it was evening, when the waves got a little bigger and the pace eventually slowed, I sat down to relax in a chair for the first time that day and looked out across the sea. The Bon festival was over, but soon the jellyfish would appear, so the crowds had come out while the swimming was still good.

Most people didn’t go in the ocean, they just sat idly under an umbrella.

They are mourning, Nishino said later that night. They are mourning the summer that’s gone by.

I turned my gaze from the water back to the beach, where Nishino and Kikumi were sprawled next to each other under their umbrella. Kikumi had long legs. Recently she had found a lover. A woman, three years older, who worked in an office, apparently.

I’m absolutely crazy about her, Kikumi told me. We had been drinking barley tea at my apartment.

Falling in love is nice, Kikumi went on. To tell you the truth, I used to think that you and Nishino weren’t really a good match, but now I can see that really isn’t the case. Kikumi started speaking faster as she neared the end of her speech. When you’re in love, it barely makes any difference how old the person is or what kind of habits or nature they have. Her lips were a shiny and glossy baby pink today.

Kikumi and Nishino looked like a father and daughter who got along well.

That was so relaxing, Nishino said that night. I really took it easy. Kikumi’s a good kid. You have good people around you, Ai, Nishino said solemnly. You create your own world, so that means that the person at the center of it—you, Ai—you must be a really good kid too. Nishino pulled gently on my hair.

I don’t really see it that way, I replied brusquely.

Nishino’s so gloomy. The thought flickered in my mind. Something about him had annoyed me. It was probably because I had worked all day without any rest. I soon closed my eyes and was half asleep. Beside me, I could sense Nishino propped up on his elbow, looking at my sleeping face. I rolled over. Nishino kept his gaze focused on my profile.

He’s probably crazy.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, they seemed to have an aura of certainty. Of course, everyone has a touch of madness in them. In fact, there’s something frightening about a person who isn’t a little crazy. But no matter how you looked at it, Nishino was definitely a deviant.

“Wasn’t I the one who said that, a while back?” Nishino laughed as he spoke.

I picked up the thick chain that was attached to the shackle around one of my ankles, and it made a rattling sound.

So you don’t run away, Ai, Nishino had said when he put the shackle on me at the end of autumn. Of course, the key was in the top drawer of a bureau that was within reach of the chain.

You can take it off any time you want to. That was how Nishino had explained it.

Why would you do such a thing? I had asked. Nishino had lowered his gaze.

Maybe to appall myself, he had replied simply after a brief pause.

As a result, I was now spending the majority of my time at Nishino’s apartment. I read books or studied there. I listened to the radio or talked on the phone to Kikumi. It would have been easy to unchain myself, but for some reason I didn’t feel the need to do so. I had the feeling that, the moment I were to take off the chain, Nishino was likely to start doing really eccentric things. As long as we both behaved collaboratively, it would be our little secret. But if one of us let it be known, then it would simply seem crazy.

But isn’t he crazy in a good way? Kikumi said on the other end of the phone. For better or worse, love is full of madness, she went on. Kikumi thought nothing more than that Nishino and I had practically shacked up together.

Lucky you, Ai! I hope one day I’ll have someone to live with like you do, Kikumi murmured.

Nishino was very kind. These days, we hardly ever had sex.

Do you know the novel called The Collector? Are we like that? I had tried asking.

No, Nishino replied briefly, I have no interest in collecting. Then he would undress me and slowly caress me, either my breasts or my back or my legs. I never wore underwear. Nishino’s home was air-conditioned, and always at the perfect temperature.

It’s time for me to go home, you know.

How many times did I come close to saying that? But I never did. I had the feeling I could leave him whenever I wanted.

I love you, Nishino would say.

It’s a simple enough thing, loving a girl, Nishino went on quietly. I wonder why it is that I’ve never been able to love any of them. And then he would embrace me in my stark naked- ness.

I didn’t love Nishino. I might not have even liked him. The thought of Nishino’s death brought on not a single tear. I merely thought of it as an inevitability. Nishino embraced me tightly. He was crying. Why was this guy in tears, I wondered vaguely.

Tomorrow—tomorrow for sure—I’ll go home, I would say to myself for the umpteenth time. But I knew that tomorrow would come and I would still be here. Within Nishino’s home, I was like a small insect in hibernation, curled up and immobile.

Still, everything always comes to an end.

Grapes, Nishino had said. I had come down with a fever. It was a cold. A few days earlier Nishino had started coughing, and he must have been contagious. Although Nishino had no fever, and had been well enough to go off to work each day.

I’ll squeeze some grapes for you, Nishino had said as he was going out the front door. Some people say the best thing for a cold is canned peaches, or sipping apple juice—but where I come from, it was always grapes, Nishino had said cheerfully.

I had laughed. But laughing made me cough, which was painful.

You take the skins off, take the seeds out too, and then squeeze all the juice out with a juicer. Back in the day, we didn’t have a juicer though, so we’d use gauze to wring out all the juice. Oh, but that might not be good for a cough. It works for a fever, though. I don’t know about a cough . . . Nishino had muttered as he bounded gaily out the door, locking it behind him.

In my feverish, half-asleep state, I imagined the grapes. Large, deep purple orbs of fruit. In the garden of the house where I grew up, there was a grape arbor, and when summer arrived, so did the scarab beetles. Even though the grapes were still small and pale green, the scarab beetles would devour them messily. By the end of summer, there would only be a few clusters left uneaten by the insects. The grapes from the arbor bore sour fruit that had a tremendous number of seeds considering their small size.

Maybe I really do love Nishino. The thought occurred to me suddenly. No, no, that must just be the fever making me weak. I was dozing in and out of consciousness when the phone rang.

I had decided not to answer it, so I let it ring and heard the answering machine pick up. “No one is here to take your call,” the automated female voice said. I liked the voice on Nishino’s answering machine just fine. I lay there, still, allowing the woman’s voice to cover me like a blanket, when I heard Nishino on the machine.

“Ai.” he repeated my name several times.

I got up and staggered to the phone, unsteady on my feet. “Is that you, Ai?” Nishino said.

“Um-hmm.”

“I’m sorry to bother you when you have a fever.”

“What’s the matter?”

“I’ve had an accident.”

 “Huh?”

“I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

Nishino’s voice carried the same upbeat tone that it had had earlier when he left the house. I thought he was joking.

“Ai, you never loved me, did you,” Nishino said on the other end of the line, sounding happy as ever.

“That’s not true,” I replied, without skipping a beat, before I even had a chance to think about it. As was my habit.

“It’s all right. You and I are alike, Ai, so I understand.”

I murmured a response in my throat.

Anyway, I’m waiting for the grapes, I said, and went to hang up.

“Wait,” Nishino said. “I wanted us to die together, but I guess there’s nothing to be done about it. What a dull life mine has been, really, in the end.”

There was a click, and the line went dead. The sound of an ambulance’s siren was coming from somewhere nearby. I collapsed back onto the bed, everything still a blur.

I could tell that my fever was raging. In my state between dreaming and waking, I became convinced that Nishino really was dead. I was utterly certain of it.

I wanted to eat the grapes, I murmured, and then I was drawn into a shallow yet insistent slumber.

It’s a good thing I’m not wearing the shackle today. That was the last thing I remember thinking.

The funeral was absolutely magnificent. Many of his “clients” came to burn offerings of incense, so it took a long time for the line of mourners to have their turn. Interspersed among them were several conspicuously attractive women.

The woman who had come to Enoshima with Nishino that time was there. And around her slim and lovely ankle, under her black stocking, she was still wearing the same gold chain.

“You’re Ai, aren’t you?” The woman from Enoshima spoke

to me, when I was behind the temple, catching my breath after the incense lighting. She had a few more wrinkles than when I had seen her previously, but she was still beautiful.

“He’s dead now, isn’t he,” she kept speaking.

“You know who I am?” I asked, and the woman from Enoshima nodded.

“I saw him sometimes, and he told me about you.”

“Did you see him often?”

“Maybe once a month.”

That’s just like Nishino, I laughed a little. He’d leave me in shackles, and then shrewdly go and meet up with his old girlfriend. “But just for a meal,” the woman from Enoshima said, smiling. “You never did love him, did you,” she peered into my eyes as she said this. I did not feel compelled to respond to such a question from someone I barely knew, and yet there was something about her I liked. For no good reason.

“Probably not,” I replied slowly.

“Serves him right,” the woman from Enoshima murmured. I remained silent.

“But you missed your chance, didn’t you,” she went on. What? I replied. Just what do you mean by that?

“There may not have been much advantage in loving Nishino, but there were good times to be had, weren’t there. It was hard work, worth doing,” the woman from Enoshima said, and then laughed out loud.

Her laugh was clear and pure. I myself was not laughing. I thought about the grapes.

I wondered what kind of grapes Nishino had planned to buy for me. Purple ones, or green ones? Would they have been the ones with small fruit? I wished he would have been able to spoon-feed me the cold, fresh-squeezed grape juice.

Nishino, I called out to him in my heart.

Nishino, I never was able to love you. I’m sorry, I said to him. I had the sense that I could hear Nishino sighing in my ear, but of course it was just my imagination.

Thirty million years from now, they say there will be no more night.

The woman from Enoshima looked shocked when these words came out of my mouth.

Is that so? she said, and then she turned her back on me.

That’s right, I called out after the woman from Enoshima as she walked away.

That’s right. Thirty million years from now, there will be no darkness in the world. Just what should I do, then? Tell me, what should I do?

 

¤

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most acclaimed and successful authors. This piece appears in the collection The Ten Loves of Nishino, out today from Europa editions. 

 


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